Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Public shaming – does it work?

The allegations that the present Pope knew about the sex abuses committed by some members of the Roman Catholic clergy and didn’t do anything about them have created a sense of outrage and moral panic among Catholic believers. It does not give the Church any consolation by continuing to choose between protecting the victims of sex abuse and protecting the Church. In the end, there is only one moral and sensible choice here: to protect both the victims and the Church.

Covering up sexual abuses by the clergy and paying off the victims and their families with hush money will not make the problem go away. Or even prosecuting the offending priests in the courts of law. The Church needs to rethink beyond the issues of crime and punishment, and implement a whole new approach, even if this requires some radical changes in church doctrine and practice.

But what is more distressing than this Church scandal or say, the Tiger Woods’ liaisons with a number of women outside his marriage, is the carnival-like attitude of society to hang in public those who have lost control of their erectile impulses. History is replete with men in high offices who were known for consorting with women other than their wives and nobody in that list was required to make a public admission of his sin. It took an evangelical and good old Christian Jimmy Carter to admit he had looked on a lot of women with lust. During an interview with Playboy, President Carter said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

This is not to say that it’s ethical and moral, save for the members of the clergy, to allow men to enjoy the company and comfort of women as if they were fruits of victory. As a public act of contrition, perhaps Jimmy Carter best summed up for all men about how difficult it was to struggle evading the snares laid by the Devil.

My point here is why we do not demand such humiliating public show of remorse from men who have done worse. Like George Bush, for his criminal invasion of Iraq. Or, Tony Blair for his collusion with Bush in an illegal war of aggression against Iraq in 2003. Many learned and independent scholars of international law have accused both men of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regardless of the issue of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Blair admitted to the BBC and the Chilcot Inquiry that he would have gone to topple Saddam Hussein anyway.

Spain’s celebrated judge Baltazar Garzon, who indicted former Chilean dictator and president Augusto Pinochet, has called for Bush, Blair and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to be prosecuted for the illegal invasion of Iraq. Garzon has condemned Iraq’s invasion as “one of the most sordid and unjustifiable episodes in recent human history.”

How about Wall Street banks for looting their clients, their deposits and the U.S. Treasury? The U.S. government bailed out Wall Street by pumping stimulus money to their coffers, money that was eventually used by these financial institutions to pay bonuses to their managers who were responsible for the economic crisis.

What took it so long for the Securities and Exchange Commission to sue Goldman Sachs? As everyone now knows, the SEC has charged the giant Wall street firm with deliberately misleading investors who participated in mortgage securities trade that was designed to fail.

Or how about chemical companies for poisoning our air and water? Or, pharmaceutical companies for the distribution of drugs inducing the diseases they supposedly prevent?

Perhaps, as human beings, it is easier for us to recycle gossips than to gather the facts. We would rather relish the public hanging of the Pope or Tiger Woods than suffer boredom and monotony in appreciating the clarity of the arguments for the prosecution of Bush and Blair for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. Instead of accepting women as subjects rather than objects the way they are treated in the tabloid press, we salivate in the manner they are regarded like exotic spoils for the victorious and the mighty.

No wonder our society appears upside down.

One of Latin America’s distinguished writers, Eduardo Galeano, wrote:

“The upside-down world rewards in reverse: it scorns honesty, punishes work, prizes lack of scruples, and feeds cannibalism. Its professors slander nature: injustice, they say, is a law of nature. Milton Friedman teaches as about the ‘natural rate of unemployment.’ Studying Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, we learn that blacks remain on the lowest rungs of the social ladder by ‘natural’ law. From John D. Rockefeller’s lectures, we know his success was due to the fact that ‘nature’ rewards the fittest and punishes the useless: more than a century later, the owners of the world continue to believe Charles Darwin wrote his books in their honour.”

The golfing gods have a reason to smile during the recent Masters golf tournament. Tiger was back and is still the king of his sport, despite finishing fourth, a difficult feat considering his absence from competition for quite some time. What really matters to the organizers is that the ratings are higher.

What does Tiger’s public shaming say about us?

To some it would seem refreshing that something as simple as shame could drive the world’s greatest athlete into hiding. Tiger Woods was embarrassed by his behaviour off the golf course, and entering a counselling program didn’t make him a changed man. Only time and how many more majors Tiger finally wins will tell if his public shaming turned out into a good thing.

At a time when many cultural critics have started to pillory America as a modern-day Rome decaying into moral rot, shame has claimed many other big names in American politics recently. Former Senator John Edwards, once a Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was run out of politics by cheating on his wife. Same with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who fell from grace after his affair was exposed. And there’s former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Idaho Senator Larry Craig, both shamed out of office.

Is it any solace to us that the concept of shame still matters? Yet, we don’t apply shame’s sharp edge on high crimes and public misdemeanours, such as those committed by leaders of states. Nor are we ever close to taking penance for the predatory nature of capitalist greed that is exemplified by Wall Street.

Public shaming may matter but only in a transitory sense. As a society, we easily forget the trespasses of those we look up to, like superstar athletes or big celebrities. It is also the Church’s tradition of forgiveness that has led itself in sheltering its errant priests through the promise of effective therapy and treatment, and later to reassignment to other parishes. Unfortunately, this often resulted in a whole new group of victims being abused.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The ultimate value of education

Every year, college graduates in the Philippines face the grim reality that only three of ten graduates have a real chance of landing a job. This means that seven out of ten new graduates would end up jobless.

In absolute figures, the numbers of unemployed college graduates are staggering. The Philippines Commission on Higher Education estimates that 542,000 college students will graduate this year, and 60 per cent or 325,000 of these graduates would be looking for jobs. Add them to the 523,000 unemployed graduates as of January 2010, and there would be 848,000 new and old college graduates competing for available jobs.

Filipino parents send their children to college hoping that a college degree would lead them to a stable job, thus provide them with a better future. However, this seems to be a false hope in these modern and hard times: a college degree is no guarantee anymore.

This is a serious challenge for each one of the candidates for president this coming election in May. As usual, every candidate will promise to make job generation a priority when elected. But for all those graduates who end up jobless, their future is in working abroad, even in jobs beneath their qualifications. Canada can therefore expect more applicants for live-in caregivers and foreign temporary workers from the Philippines. The source of cheap labour to exploit is not about to dry up soon.

The country’s dismal economy is mainly responsible for the lack of employment opportunities. Of course, government leaders also share the brunt of the blame for failing to stimulate the economy and provide jobs for new college graduates. They would rather encourage college graduates and other jobseekers to work overseas and help the local economy afloat with their money remittances. However, over the long haul, this is not an effective and lasting solution. The government cannot forever rely on foreign earnings of Filipino overseas workers.

Good and honest government and sensible structural changes in the economy are badly needed if we want our college graduates to stay home instead of waste their education in slave labour abroad. In sending our graduates overseas, the Philippine government also squanders its investment in education, and in part, subsidizes the education programs of the countries where these graduates end up working. Developed countries do not have to spend so much in educating their young because it is much easier and less expensive to poach the skilled and trained labour surplus of poorer countries. Employers from rich countries usually end up paying rock-bottom wages to these workers, while their governments also save the additional cost of providing protections and other services by either ignoring or paying lip service to the appalling working conditions that these foreign workers find themselves in.

The Philippines and other like countries have become a huge source of labour surplus, an army of skilled workers who would remain unemployed if they decide to stay home. Their governments continue to invest millions of money in educating their population, ironically not for their benefit but for the benefit of already-rich countries.

Education is essential in preparing for one’s future, especially in a society that values higher education. There is no denying that any modern economy requires skilled and motivated workers, thus education plays an important function in ensuring a steady flow of these workers. But the problem with education today is that this connection has become too direct. We now educate ourselves simply to get a job. This distorts the true purpose of schooling. Instead of aiming at the development of individuals as an end in itself, college graduates have become mere instruments in the economic process.

The contemporary view is that earning and learning go hand in hand. One who has more years of schooling is less likely to be unemployed, and salary-wise, more likely to earn a higher income. People with a bachelor’s degree are expected to earn more than the average high school graduate. They are assumed to enjoy middleclass living after college, a lifestyle that includes owning one’s own home and raising a family comfortably. Thus, if one goes to college, he or she would probably earn more money and enjoy work at the same time.

What’s wrong with this belief?

The reality is that a college degree is not a guarantee at all. We see this truism in the Philippines where college graduates end up unemployed or work as modern-day slaves somewhere in a foreign country.

Besides, income also depends on one’s occupation. Some people may decide to pursue careers that pay less but are rewarding in other ways. Teachers, social workers, religious ministers, and librarians, for example, don’t make as much as other college graduates, but they often find great satisfaction in giving something back to the community.

The benefits of higher education can’t be measured just in terms of money. Yet, a United Nations task force on higher education insists that while higher education is no longer a luxury, “it is essential to national social and economic development.” This kind of pronouncement has the effect of marginalizing higher education as seen in the tendency toward market-driven education, which some criticize us the corporatization of the academe. Public schools of higher learning or state-run universities, everywhere in the world, now compete against each other in order to survive with their reduced budgets. Even international rankings of universities have induced piracy of the best talents, both faculty and students.

The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University in the U.K. has lamented that students are now being treated as “a source of income, not an investment in the future.” A professor at Oxford once posed the following question: “Can, we in Europe, have social justice in higher education and world-class research universities?” To which the Cambridge Vice Chancellor replied that it is wrong to look upon universities as “engines for promoting social justice.”

This reminds me of an anecdote shared by a professor at the University of the Philippines during her centennial lecture in 2008 which went as follows:

“Whenever I cringe at my students’ essays, whether written in Filipino or English, they tell me that one reason they did not learn to write in UP is that when their papers or exams are returned, all they see is a number. No indication whatsoever is written about what the number actually means, about which part of the essay is poorly argued or badly written and why. So they repeat the same mistakes—because they passed those courses anyway—until they get to me. I tell them that at the senior level it is a little too late for me to undo what they have internalized, even as I apply the weapon of fear followed by horrifying grief upon reading their first draft.”

Is this probably due to a student’s ability to express himself or herself in writing, which is insignificant from the student’s point of view when considered against the inability to secure a job upon graduation? Or, is it because the student will pass the course, no matter what? Which suggests to us there are fundamental problems in the manner we educate our young today.

It is vital that we distinguish between education and training, and to recognize that people require both. However, we need not be ashamed of what is involved in training versus real education. Young children must know their multiplication tables, be able to read, spell and write correctly, in the same way an athlete trains the body for competition. After learning and building confidence from repetitive practice, children will be able to profit from the next level, which is education proper. It is at this level that a student learns to think and discern how to find and use information when needed. This is after all what education must be: to be able to refine our capacities for judgment and evaluation.

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, learning is only a means to acquire understanding, and understanding, the ultimate value of education. Plato considered education as “the bringing out” of an idea that we have known since time immemorial.

This belief has been modified over the course of centuries, perhaps in more sensible directions by later thinkers. They saw education as a tool by which the individual can learn how to develop his or her inborn talents and capabilities, rather than innate knowledge. In a sense, this is good and much closer to the true objective of education. We continue to believe that given the opportunities, education can help our human gifts to flourish.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On meanings and contradictions

Oftentimes, the words democracy and freedom are used interchangeably in political discussions as if they have the same meaning. Yet the true meanings of these two terms are very different. To the average person, however, they are identical, or at least, the belief that democracy would not survive without freedom. Thus to many people, they are complementary, which explains why the non-political scientist among us, and we are legion, would not be able to see the difference.

Let us consider, for example, two popular indices, the Democracy Index and the Happy Planet Index.

The Democracy Index (DI) is compiled by The Economist, a respectable English-language weekly news and international publication, which examines the state of democracy in about 167 countries in the world. It is an attempt to quantify the measurement of democracy in five general categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. The countries are then categorized into “Full Democracies,” “Flawed Democracies,” “Hybrid Regimes,” and “Authoritarian Regimes.”

On the other hand, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) is an index of human well-being and environmental impact. It was introduced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in July 2006. The NEF is an independent British think-tank, founded in 1986 by the leaders of The Other Economic Summit (TOES) with the goal of establishing a new model of wealth creation based on equality, diversity and economic stability. TOES, you would recall, was a counter-summit to the annual G7 summits, which also challenged the G7 leaders to speak for the world.

HPI takes the issue of sustainability into account, not just the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which it considers inappropriate because the ultimate aim of most people is not to be rich, but to be happy and healthy. It believes that the notion of sustainable development requires a measure of the environmental costs of pursuing those goals.

The 2008 rankings compiled by the Democracy Index put Sweden on top with the highest index. All the countries in the top ten have a parliamentary democracy combined with either a constitutional monarchy or a parliamentary republic. Most of them are Scandinavian countries, with the exception of New Zealand and Australia, which were number 7 and 10, respectively.

Canada is number 11 in the list, while the United States is number 18. The Philippines is 77th in the list and is considered a flawed democracy, only 0.05 percentage points better than two other flawed democracies, Nicaragua and Guatemala. North Korea is at the bottom of the list, with 0.86 points from a possible total of 10.

The Happy Planet Index is a reversal of sorts in the rankings. A total of 148 countries were surveyed in 2009, compared to 178 in 2006. The best-scoring country in 2009 was Costa Rica, followed by the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, with Tanzania, Botswana and Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

It is fascinating, yet perplexing, to note that Sweden, the top-ranked country on the Democracy Index, is way below, at number 53, in the Happy Planet Index. Haiti (#42-HPI), one of the poorest countries in the world, is one rung higher on the happiness scale than Netherlands (#43-HPI) which was the fourth highest on the Democracy Index. Flawed democracies like Jamaica, Guatemala and Colombia were in the top ten happy countries, and communist-run states like Vietnam, Cuba and China were ranked higher at number 5, 7, and 20, respectively. The Philippines came higher this time on the HPI at no. 14, compared to Canada at no. 89 and the United States at no. 114.

Using a measurement called the ecological footprint per capita, the Happy Planet Index estimates the amount of natural resources required to sustain a country’s lifestyle. Those countries with large per capita ecological footprint use more than their fair share of resources, both by importing and exploiting resources from other countries, and by causing long-term and permanent damage to the environment that will impact future generations. Thus, the forecast for economic powerhouses and strong democracies like the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and like countries is both gloomy and creepy. On the other hand, citizens of the Dominican Republic (#2-HPI) and the Kingdom of Bhutan (#17-HPI) are much happier despite their comparably lower GDP.

According to the 2005 Annual Report of the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Development, the Dominican Republic was no. 14 in the world for resource mismanagement. Bhutan, one of the most isolated countries in the world, has balanced its path toward modernization with its ancient culture and traditions under the guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). In 2006, Business Week magazine rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and eight happiest in the world.

What would make full-pledged democracies with fundamental freedoms guaranteed to their citizens, and with strong economic foundations to boot, less happy than flawed democracies and poorer countries, or even unhappier than citizens of communist or authoritarian regimes? Either there is something wrong with the metrics being used, or maybe we are comparing apples and oranges.

This discrepancy, perhaps, could also explain why being a democracy does not necessarily mean freedom for its citizens.

To the rigid mind of a political scientist, and more particularly to the U.S. Republican Party, democracy is not freedom, but simply majoritarianism. Their core belief is that the concept of majority rule is inherently incompatible with real freedom. Could this be the reason why the word “democracy” is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution or in the Declaration of Independence?

We have been conditioned to believe that democracy is a synonym for freedom. Words like “freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice” have been used dishonestly and abused for so long that their original meanings have been adulterated. The writer George Orwell similarly lamented about meaningless words that are endlessly repeated in the political arena.

The present Tea Party movement in the United States, for example, represents less government interference. Its followers and the GOP currently loathe the present occupant in the White House and the Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress. Or in the words of the late Republican president Ronald Reagan, “Man is not free unless government is limited... As government expands, liberty contracts.”

In a very recent NY Times/CBS News poll, Tea Party supporters believe that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich. That’s a great contradiction and a tragic human failing. What is wrong with helping the poor who really need assistance instead of shepherding the middle class or the rich who are economically able and stronger to stave off the effects of an economic crisis?

Furthermore, supporters of the Tea Party movement feel that their opinions are not represented in Washington. Looking at the current make-up the U.S. Congress, the people elected to represent them are hardly poor, but mainly rich or very rich.

Here is where the greatest contradiction lies: a democratic government that counts on the strength of its majority and the perception that there is less freedom when the government intervenes in an economic crisis. It’s like being number one in the Democracy Index, yet in the company of have-nots in the Happy Planet Index. Or worse, less happier than those with very weak economies.

We who live in so-called bulwarks of freedom and democracy are more divided politically. There are no more slaves. Instead, we have detainees in Guantanamo and some in Canadian prisons, held without due process for suspicion of terrorism or conspiring with terrorists. No more slaves. Yet, we have migrant workers and illegal immigrants who come to our soil to do indentured or back-breaking work for low wages and for little rights.

Our understanding of the meaning of freedom or democracy appears distorted, thus allowing these contradictions to prevail. To be ranked the highest or among the top ten of countries in the Democracy Index does not really measure up it seems, if those who live in poorer economies and with fewer freedoms enjoy a much happier life than many of us do.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

On growing old

One is never too old for the internet. Olive Riley, an Australian woman believed to have been the world’s oldest blogger, started her blog, The Life of Riley, in February 2007, at the age of 107.

With a little help from a friend, Olive, who could not see well enough to type, posted over 70 entries and several video posts on You Tube. She made her final post on June 26, 2008, at her nursing home in Woy Woy, New South Wales, two weeks before she died at the age of 108.

So many individuals have become famous in old age. The American folk artist Grandma Moses took up painting when she was 75, and painted 1,600 paintings by her death at the age of 101. Enrico Dandolo, the 41st Doge of Venice from 1195 until his death, led the infamous Fourth Crusade in his 80s. Harry Bernstein published his first book, The Invisible Wall, at 96 in 2007. When his wife Ruby died in 2007 after 67 years of marriage, loneliness devastated Harry and he used that as the catalyst in writing his first book. He has since published two more books and continues to write.

Arthur Winston, who at age 100 retired from his job at the Los Angeles Metro after 72 years, missed only one day at his work. That happened when he had to attend his wife’s funeral in 1988. There are many others, all octogenarians and centenarians, who did well in their golden years.

Being old is never a burden to society. The Chinese, for example, take the usefulness of experience to the extreme. In their gerontocracy, no one under 75 is regarded as yet fit for power. For the Chinese, time induces perspective. When the late Chinese leader Zhou En Lai was asked whether he thought the French Revolution was a good thing, he paused, and then said: “It’s too soon to say.”

If aging brings wrinkles, sagging bodies and increasing episodes of forgetfulness, getting older may not really be bad at all. There is evidence to support that aging may be a key to happiness. Despite conflicting results from research studies on aging, most experts say it may boil down to this: Attitude is everything.

Research shows that older adults tend to be more optimistic and to have a positive outlook than their young and more stressed counterparts. This observation is very important in light of increase in life expectancy.

A research published by Yang Yang, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, suggests that an increase in the years of happy life for people over 65 accompanied the increase in life expectancy on the average. The big question is, why are older people happier?

A more recent study suggests one reason why: older adults remember the past through a rosy lens. In other words, they tend to have rose-coloured memories. Optimism also lends itself well to old age. In one study, both old and young participants were shown virtual faces portraying sadness, anger, fear and happiness. Eye-tracking technology showed the participants aged 18 to 21 focused more on the fearful faces, while those aged 57 to 84 zeroed in on the happy faces, avoiding the angry ones.

In general, the studies suggest that older adults enjoy life when they are more comfortable with themselves and their roles in society. More than a majority of participants in the studies said they were enjoying more time with their family. About two-thirds reported more time for hobbies, more financial security, and not having to work, as benefits of old age.

Although there were conflicting findings about aging and happiness, the good news is that there doesn’t appear to be a limit to how much happiness one can achieve in one’s life. It’s all about attitude, the studies would seem to agree.

Which brings us to the other notion, that of dying of old age. Many grandparents have died of old age, but doctors remain woefully unable to explain how the advanced years kill poor Grandpa or Grandma. Perhaps, they attribute an elderly person’s death to old age because there is no other obvious explanation.

It’s true that there is a fixed limit to the human lifespan. Still, the human body doesn’t just grind to a halt after reaching a certain age.

A study conducted at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Vienna showed that in many cases, elderly deaths are pinned to old age because no one looked very hard for the true cause. After scores of people who died after age 80 were autopsied, the study found that the 40 centenarians who died at home, while they all looked healthy and seemed to be healthy, they were not. The study found disease in every case, such as cardiovascular problems and respiratory illnesses.

So, it is disease that is ultimately to blame for death at old age. However, a downward spiral that leaves an older person particularly vulnerable often precedes this. The new science on frailty is helping explain symptoms that come with aging like weight loss, decreased muscle mass and strength, weakness, lack of energy, and reduced motor performance. Frailty seems to spring from a general weakening of the body, including the skeletal, muscular, blood and neuroendocrine systems. Thus, frailty may be the answer to who is going to die in the short term.

Because autopsies are rarely done on old people, this makes it difficult for doctors to ascertain the true cause of death or to learn from their mistakes. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, postmortem examination is quality control in medicine. If only autopsies were more common, fewer deaths would be attributed to old age. Dying of old age could be an old wives’ tale. Finding out the real cause of grandma or grandpa’s death might also yield clues about how all of us could live longer.

Certainly, we all can learn a lot from the lives of older people. As the French moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert said: “Life is a country that the old have seen, and live in; those who have yet to travel through it can only learn the way from them.”

This reminds me of a good and bad news story I heard before.

An old man visits his doctor and after a thorough examination, the doctor tells him: “I have good news and bad news, what would you like to hear first?”

Patient: “Well, give me the bad news first.”

Doctor: “You have cancer. I estimate that you have about two years left.”

Patient: “OH NO! That’s awful! In two years, my life will be over! What kind of good news could you probably tell me, after this?”

Doctor: “You also have Alzheimer’s. In about three months you are going to forget everything I told you.”